Roger Griffin, a professor at Oxford Brookes University in England and expert on terrorism, understands the challenges in understanding empathy from both a personal and professional standpoint.
As the author of "Terrorist's Creed: Fanatical Violence and the Human Need for Meaning," he knows that fanatical violence and sociopathic killing usually involve a dysfunction in empathy. And, from the way boys of his son's age (14) behave with their peers and parents, he sees that even those who seem well-adjusted, socially well-integrated, and academically successful occasionally have lapses in which empathy is replaced by violent verbal outbursts and threatening physicality -- a pattern he believes is fueled by video games that celebrate violence and criminality.
“The capacity for empathy is suspended at least temporarily in that moment of violence,” he said. “Human beings have a disturbing capacity for creating a space within their imagination where a category, or part, of the world is replaced by a symbolic consciousness. So you’re not killing the person -- you’re killing the symbol of what you hate. So if you hate school, you might kill a schoolteacher.”
This plays out across many mass killings and acts of terrorism, he points out: the Twin Towers, for example, symbolizing the West and capitalism, overshadowing the real human beings in the buildings.
“It’s a very powerful tribute to the complexity of human imagination,” he said. “But when it goes wrong it’s terrifying.”
Research may not only help understand how extreme violence occurs, but it could be used in figuring out ways to teach empathy.
“We may have to teach kids in different ways," Pfeifer said. "Systems may be plastic at different periods."
Of course, teaching empathy and emotional intelligence is just one part of solving an extremely complex puzzle of violence.
“All schoolteachers and parents should be proactively educating kids about empathy, but at the end of the day there are limits to how much you can prevent,” Griffin said.